White House is Wrong: Campaigning Presidents Have Held Bilateral Meetings at UNGA

September 23, 2012 - 11:04 PM

Bush and Allawi at UN

During the latter stages of his 2004 re-election campaign President Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly and held separate bilateral meetings on the sidelines with the leaders of India, Japan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. He is seen here in New York on September 21, 2004 with interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. (Photo: White House archives)

(CNSNews.com) – White House press secretary Jay Carney’s assertion that President Obama’s decision not to meet visiting leaders alongside this week’s U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) gathering in New York is in line with past re-election campaigns is not accurate.

Of the past four American presidents who attended the UNGA’s fall event while campaigning for re-election, only one held no bilateral meetings on the event sidelines.

For an administration that has consistently stressed the importance of engagement with the international community, especially through the U.N., Obama’s diary for Monday and Tuesday has raised eyebrows.

Steering clear of potential pitfalls that could benefit Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Obama has not made time to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who reportedly specifically requested a meeting.

Egyptian media, citing presidential officials, reported weeks ago that President Mohamed Morsi would meet with Obama in New York. At a critical time in U.S.-Egypt relations, that meeting is now not scheduled to take place either.

In fact Obama will not meet with any other leader who will be in town for the high-level event, according to Carney.

He will, however, record an appearance Monday on the daytime show “The View,” together with First Lady Michelle Obama, for broadcast on Tuesday. ABC says the show will “touch on such topics as their relationship, family life inside the White House and the election.”

This will be Obama’s fifth appearance on “The View.” His debut in July 2010 was watched by 6.59 million people, a record for the program. His last visit, last May, drew 4.7 million viewers. The election is 41 days away.

The substantive part of Obama’s New York schedule comprises his address to the UNGA and a brief meeting with U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. He will also deliver a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative forum. (Romney will also address President Clinton’s CGI, three hours before Obama.)

Carney confirmed on Thursday that Obama has scheduled no bilateral meetings while in New York, telling reporters “his attendance at UNGA is in keeping with attendance by past presidents engaged in a re-election campaign.”

“I think his engagement with foreign leaders has been, and will continue to be, extremely robust,” Carney said. “We just simply have no formal bilateral meetings scheduled at this time.”

The last four presidents who attended the UNGA while campaigning for re-election were President George W. Bush in 2004, President Clinton in 1996, President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and President Reagan in 1984.

Of the four, only President George H.W. Bush met with no foreign leader. (Media outlets at the time attributed the decision to campaign concerns that Bush would be criticized for caring more about foreign issues than domestic ones.)

In September 2004 President George W. Bush – also in the middle of a hard-fought campaign – held separate meetings on the sidelines of the UNGA with the leaders of India, Japan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. He also met with then U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, and hosted a reception for heads of state and government, meeting some individuals on the edges of that event as well.

Alongside the 1996 UNGA, President Clinton met with the Japanese prime minister, and also signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the first world leader to do so.

On the sidelines of the UNGA in 1984, President Reagan met with the prime minister of Argentina, the exiled king of Cambodia, and held a highly-anticipated encounter with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko – Reagan’s first meeting since taking office with a leader of the country he had famously labeled an “evil empire” the previous year.

Robert Gibbs

Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

‘They have telephones’

On Sunday Robert Gibbs, Carney’s predecessor at the White House and now a senior Obama campaign advisor, was asked by Fox News’ Chris Wallace about Obama’s New York schedule.

“He has time for [‘The View’ co-host] Whoopi Goldberg but he doesn't have time for world leaders?” Wallace asked.

“Look,” responded Gibbs, “the president is going to be actively involved in the U.N. General Assembly.”

Asked about the absence of bilateral meetings, he continued, “They have telephones in the White House. Last week, he talked to the president of Egypt, he talked to the leader in Libya. We don’t need a meeting in Washington just to confer with leaders.”

“This isn’t just about one meeting on one particular day in New York,” Gibbs said. “The president is actively involved in engaging the most dangerous places in the world, every single day of the week.”

On Friday, assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs Esther Brimmer told reporters in Washington that U.S. multilateral leadership has been restored under the Obama administration.

“If you compare where the United States is now with the situation President Obama faced in January 2009,” she said, “I think it’s clear that U.S. global engagement, including across the United Nations system, has resulted in an America that is more effectively addressing a range of global challenges and threats and is more respected as a leader.”